Music videos have become an essential part of the music industry. They visually represent a song’s message, enhance the listening experience, and promote the artist’s brand. Over the years, some music videos have stood out for their creativity, innovation, and impact on popular culture.
In this article, we will explore the ten most iconic music videos of all time. We’ll delve into the stories behind the making of these videos, examine their impact on the music industry and popular culture, and consider the reasons why they continue to resonate with audiences today.
From Michael Jackson’s iconic ‘Thriller’ to Beyoncé’s empowering ‘Single Ladies’, these music videos have captured the hearts and minds of millions of people worldwide. They have set the standard for what a music video should be, inspiring generations of artists and filmmakers. Whether you are a music lover, a filmmaker, or simply someone who appreciates great art, this article will take you on a journey through the best music videos ever made.
The Birth of Music Videos
Music videos have the power to propel songs into new stratospheres of historic importance. The classic music video has come a long way since the 1980s. The arrival of MTV spelled a new era for recording artists.
The dedicated cable channel was initially only available in Jersey (who knew?!). However, after quickly expanding, music fans could suddenly access non-stop, genre-spanning music videos. This radical new development meant that, from a marketing point of view, cleverly shot videos fast became just as important to a new release as the song itself.
Music videos began to ignite a new offshoot in subculture by creating a stand-alone genre all of its own. This allowed artists to anchor their music releases more firmly in time, bucking the previous trend for flash-in-the-pan track transience.
A new wave of mini cinematic masterpieces were quickly being archived as cult classics that would continue to be discussed decades after their release.
Early Music Videos
Aptly, MTV’s first ever music video had the title ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. It was released by the Buggles in August 1981 – back when if you owned a computer, you were probably seen as a local hero! Later, in 1983, Michael Jackson released his infamous horror-imbued music video to accompany ‘Thriller’.
‘Thriller’ set the bar high. With it, Jackson would earn a place on just about every iconic music video list that has ever been written. Where better to begin our ultimate list of ten of the most iconic music videos than with the legend himself?
The Most Iconic Music Videos of All Time
Among these ten iconic music videos, you will find creative song pairings recognised for their unique visual style, intense imagery, or incredible impact on popular culture.
These generation-straddling feats typically feature boundary-pushing creative production, as well as innovative choreography and direction. The linking theme with all of the videos is that they each have a strong connection to the recording artist’s identity or the song’s message.
1. Michael Jackson – Thriller: Early Music Videos
Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was released in 1983. John Landis, of ‘American Werewolf in London’ fame, directed the accompanying video. It pushed boundaries as the first music video to feature a full-length storyline and dark and cheesy fantasy horror elements. The video shoot had a budget of $500,000, taking just 14 days to film.
The video follows a 25-year-old Michael Jackson and his date, Ola Ray, a former playboy bunny and actress, taking a walk through a graveyard on a dark night. When a group of zombies confront the pair, Jackson must use his dance moves to save them both.
The video featured cameos from horror icons like Vincent Price and horror makeup artist Rick Baker and was an immediate success. As a result, it became a heavily rotated video on MTV.
It became the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Rightfully, it went down in history as being the music video that popularised the format. Since then, it has become one of the most iconic videos of all time.
2. Madonna – Vogue: Best Pop Music Videos
Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ music video was released in 1990 and helped create a frenzy of record sales, with 6 million being sold following its release. David Fincher directed the music video for Vogue. It featured Madonna and a group of dancers performing a mix of African and Latin dance styles in a slick black-and-white art deco-style set.
The sleek synth intro walks you through art-nude paintings hanging in a gallery before introducing Madonna’s famous “strike a pose” vocals. Fincher shot Vogue in just one day, but it spent six weeks in post-production.
The director applied groundbreaking editing techniques, including live-action and computer-generated effects, to create striking chromatic visuals that became synonymous with the song. He also applied a technique called ‘bullet time’, which he used to create the video’s unique slow-motion effect.
The music video won several awards, including the MTV Video Music Award for Best Dance Video. It went down in history as iconic because of its then boundary-pushing CGI and its unusual choreography. It also helped to popularise the vogueing dance style, with artists including Lady Gaga and Beyonce citing it as an influence.
3. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody: Best Rock Music Videos
The 1975 music video for Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ begins with a traditional ‘recorded performance’ format. The video then evolves into a cleverly lit conceptual piece later dubbed a “visual landmark” for the band.
Bohemian Rhapsody was directed by Bruce Gowers, who was no stranger to working with greats. He also directed videos for Fleetwood Mac, Prince and the Rolling Stones.
The video shoot took place in one day at London’s historic Wembley Arena and was the first music video to feature a band performing in front of a live audience. It was shot in one take and featured the band members performing the song in their iconic extraterrestrial-style costumes.
The video was an immediate success and has since become one of the most iconic music videos of all time. It was one of the first videos played by MTV following its launch and was credited with giving the song its cult status. Its impact on the music video industry was profound.
The Bohemian Rhapsody video became an iconic representation of the band Queen and now has billions of views on YouTube. The song itself has been parodied and referenced in popular culture, refreshing its importance and seeding its popularity for a new generation.
Several publications voted it the best music video of all time. Furthermore, it was inducted into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame in 2005.
4. Beyoncé – Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)
Beyoncé’s 2008 music video for ‘Single Ladies’ became an instant sensation. It’s hard not to notice the inspiration from Madonna’s popular ‘Vogue’ video. The similarly well-rehearsed choreography twists the classic into a modern masterpiece. The video was directed by Jake Nava, with choreography by Frank Gatson Jr.
The video features Beyoncé dancing with two other female dancers on a black-and-white background. It was shot in a single take in a studio in Los Angeles.
The concept of the video was to portray Beyoncé as a strong, independent woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself and be her own person.
In this edgy offering, Queen B adopts an almost robotic dance routine. When blended with the song’s musicality, the result is a totally unique and attention-grabbing tape. The video features Beyonce wearing a shiny bionic hand, which transports the ‘Vogue’-esque movements into a powerful modern twist.
‘Single Ladies’ features intricate choreography heavily influenced by the musical ‘Cabaret’. The punchy video seamlessly blends eras, using B’s feisty facial expressions and glam gestures to set it apart from other music videos of the time.
The video would receive nominations for several awards, including Video of the Year at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. It has since amassed over 900 million views on YouTube and is a common reference in television shows, movies and songs. The video’s iconic phrase, “If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it,” became a popular catchphrase among strong single women and has links with female empowerment.
5. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
Lady Gaga’s highly creative offering in ‘Bad Romance’ intertwined Gaga’s signature risqué style with classic production techniques. Bold hand gestures and minimal colour etched themselves perfectly into the cinematic scenes, with one scene showing white latex-clad bodies emerging from futuristic pods.
Watching the ‘Bad Romance’ music video takes you on a journey where the music almost feels incidental to the visuals.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, the video first aired in 2009. It dramatically follows Gaga as a group of supermodels kidnap her, forcing her to be part of a surreal and twisted romantic fantasy.
With strobe lights punctuating scenes, it is a visionary creation with twisted sci-fi vibes. Among the array of avant-garde features are scenes of Gaga being carried away in a white horse-drawn carriage and a dance sequence featuring a group of masked dancers.
The video also features a variety of fashion statements, including Gaga’s iconic meat dress, for which the video became famous.
The video was shot over four days in a large warehouse in Los Angeles. It was choreographed by Laurieann Gibson and featured over 60 dancers. The video was filmed using a combination of traditional 35mm film and high-definition video.
Surreal visuals and fashion statements created a perfect concoction for ‘Bad Romance’ to become iconic. The music video has over 1.6 billion views on YouTube and was the most-viewed video on the platform at the time of its release. Formal recognition came in 2012, when it won Best Female Video at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.
6. Psy – Gangnam Style
Psy’s 2012 music video for ‘Gangnam Style’ quickly became an international viral sensation. The video is a satirical take on the wealthy lifestyle of the Gangnam district of Seoul in South Korea. It features Psy dancing through various locations while wearing a variety of outrageous colourful outfits. The video was directed by Cho Soo-Hyun and produced by YG Entertainment.
Shooting took place over three days at various locations around Seoul, including a horse-riding club, a spa, and a golf course. Psy and his team created the choreography, with video editing taking place over the course of a week.
The video quickly became iconic due to its catchy tune, humorous song lyrics, and Psy’s unique dance moves. It was the first YouTube video to reach one billion views, spawning a dance craze that went viral worldwide. The video was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Video in 2013.
The video has now had almost 5 billion views on YouTube, and it’s easy to see why. Its hilarious blend of kitsch clothing, everyday activities, motivational dance moves, and hook-filled poptastic vocals were a guilty pleasure waiting to be discovered. Fans of all ages seem to love the laugh-out-loud ridiculousness which propelled it to its dizzy heights.
7. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball
Miley Cyrus released her music video for ‘Wrecking Ball’ in 2013. It quickly became iconic on account of its tough yet soft power-ballad style. The Terry Richardson-directed video was impressively shot in a single take and featured Miley Cyrus singing while swinging on a giant demolition ball.
Throughout the music video, Miley alternates between wearing a white tank top and pants and being nude.
The video, which was shot in LA, was inspired by the idea of a young woman who has been hurt and is trying to find her way back from the wreckage of her past. The video was also made to launch Miley as an adult entertainer, as she had previously found fame as a child star.
The music video would receive praise on account of its emotional message, which many identified with. The piece, which features some emotive close-ups, became the most-viewed video on Vevo in 2013, receiving nominations for several awards, including a Grammy, MTV Video Music Award and an MTV Video Music Award in Japan.
The video has amassed over 1.2 billion views on YouTube, making it one of the most-viewed videos of all time.
8. Kendrick Lamar – Humble: Best Rap Music Videos
‘Humble’ was released in 2017, with seasoned pro Dave Meyers directing. Trained at Fox and Paramount, Meyers chose to steer away from feature films in favour of making hit music videos. He did so successfully, working with recording greats such as Missy Elliot, Camilla Cabello and Taylor Swift.
The ‘Humble’ video starts with Kendrick Lamar dressed like the pope, with shafts of light penetrating a smokey and atmospheric place of worship. The video alternates between pop-style stills, which are intersected tightly with thought-provoking nods to racial inequality.
In one scene, Lamar wears all black as he lays on a table of counterfeit money, carelessly shooting bills from a cash cannon. Opposing this depiction of greedy materialism are Lamar’s heavy biblical references. His recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century painting, ‘The Last Supper’, sees him sit as though he were Jesus surrounded by disciples.
There are various cameos in the symbolic music video, from fellow rappers such as Jay Rock and Soundwave to various other members of TDE. Lamar’s video enhanced his filterless style, offering a window into his anti-establishment persuasions.
Commentators have praised ‘Humble’ for “reviving” the music video and being “a powerful form of social commentary”. The video won six awards and remains Lamar’s most-watched video on his channel.
9. David Bowie – Ashes to Ashes
In the no-expense-spared video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’, David Bowie collaborated with David Mallet, who went on to shoot videos for Queen, Iron Maiden and AC/DC. It cost £250,000 to make – the most expensive music video of its time when it was shot in May 1980. Bowie was heavily involved in the creative recording process, which took three days. He storyboarded each scene himself and oversaw the editing process.
Co-director Mallet used the revolutionary ‘Quantel Paintbox’ system to alter the colour palette, rendering the sky black and the ocean pink. The way the pair played with colours and effects was seen as deliberately overloaded by some. They used horror-movie-style camera angles, heavy solarisations and strong saturation to achieve the never-before-seen effect.
‘Ashes to Ashes’ went against the grain of the popular music videos of its time, which were increasingly using the format to tell a story in a mini-movie. Instead, Bowie chose to create a depiction of dream-like neurosis. The video featured various UK locations, including Beachy Head in Sussex, famous for its lofty white cliffs which kiss the sea.
There are even scenes within this iconic piece which hark back to Bowie’s early career in mime. Furthermore, there are poignant references to his kaleidoscopic mental state, represented by videos within videos.
10. Daft Punk – Around the World: Innovative Music Videos
‘Around the World’ came out in April 1997. French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who also made videos for the likes of Radiohead, Beck and Bjork, directed the video. It was his first attempt to incorporate dancing into his work.
The director described the music video as “a family affair”. Michael Gondry’s partner made the costumes, and his brother managed the lighting. The video featured Gondry’s cinematic style, for which he would go on to become well-known.
The masterful music video features five rotating groups, including extra tall breakdancers with additional prosthetic heads, synchronised swimmers in sequins, mummies and skeletons, and parading astronauts with antennae.
The groups all moved in sync around a giant vinyl record, with an integrated platform allowing for spectacularly synchronised visuals that lifted the drum pattern into the cult balconies of the music video scene.
The idea behind the music video, which now has 43 million views on YouTube, was that each group of characters represented a different instrument.
Gondry described being sick of how music videos had started to “mistreat” choreography, making special reference to his dislike of how choreography was a lazy filler, which, together with fast cutting and editing, he felt was “really shallow”.
Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’ video was so iconic it was worthy of a rebirth. In 2005, it featured in LCD Soundsystem’s hit, ‘Daft Punk Is Playing at My House’, and then again when dance group the Freemasons replicated the set and style in their 2007 ‘Rain Down Love’ music video.
Final Thoughts on the Most Iconic Music Videos of All Time
As you can see from the iconic examples in this list, the style and tone of a music video can give a song a powerful new dimension. In doing so, videos help artists showcase their unique style and artistry.
Indeed, some videos were so risqué with their never before seen facets that they triggered controversial and sometimes political reactions. Some would even face cancellation altogether on profanity grounds (Madonna, we’re looking at you).
These influential music videos arguably became so popular they transcended the music industry altogether. Impressive cinematic credentials nudge them into the film industry itself as ‘shorts’ or ‘promos’.